Still image from All In: The Poker Movie
Still image from All In: The Poker Movie

In the documentary world, filmmakers rarely know what they’re making when they start making it. Instead, they move through time, chronicling changing situations, in the hopes that something great might happen. But the best filmmakers are adept, knowing when to raise, when to fold and when to exchange cards, when the game allows it.

All In: The Poker Movie, which begins a theatrical run this month, is one of those documentaries that started one way and ended up a wholly different story.

Directed by Douglas Tirola of 4th Row Films and produced by collaborators Susan Bedusa and Robert Greene, All In started out with a gamble.

The project started in 2008 when poker was in the midst of a boom. “We started making the film so many years ago, it’s hard to remember,” said Bedusa. She thought the film could be profitable, “and Doug had a soft spot for poker — He used to play with his father and grandfather.”

4th Row Films has had a series of documentaries find success recently, including those directed not only by Tirola (An Omar Broadway Film) but by the editor of All In, Robert Greene (Kati With An I, Fake It So Real). The company uses its documentary chops to bring in commercial work, which fuels the business and occasionally leads to a story idea.

“We have the other side of our company that does marketing work for brands,” said Bedusa. “And through that we were covering this big New York City poker tournament. It was run by a Wall Street guy… a huge poker tournament for his clients, and his celebrity friends. We would go and film it with 10 cameras. We realized how cinematic it was.”

Not only was it cinematic, but the filmmaking team also connected the visual potential to a potential in the online video marketplace.

“This was just at the time when people were starting to download stuff to watch,” said Bedusa. “Our feeling was that there are so many poker players out there, and the audience is worldwide. And so many of them playing online that they were already used to signing in, and putting down their credit card number and spending money that way, which is an unusual trait.”

The film is interview driven, ranging from top poker players, such as the aptly named Chris Moneymaker, to such poker-playing celebrities as former U.S. Sen. Al D’Amato, basketball coach Denny Crum, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, journalist Ira Glass and actor Matt Damon. Most speak in the film of poker as a piece of Americana, but poker fans will also remember Damon as the star of Rounders, a film that’s iconic in that world.

“It’s more of an essay film,” Bedusa says. “It’s not so character-driven. Doug really wanted to explore the why.”

Through these revolving interviews and a thread of Moneymaker’s rise to, well, moneymaking, the film tells the story of the rise and fall and rise and fall of poker.

The film was scheduled for release in July 2011, after it had won top laurels at Cinevegas in 2009, but then, on April 15, 2011, what would come to be known as Black Friday, the game changed. The FBI moved to shut down online poker, which had been fueling the poker movement in the United States.

“We decided not to release it, which was a tough decision,” said Bedusa. “The film had already won awards and been in festivals, so it was already out there, in some sense. Then Black Friday happened.”

The film was re-conceived around the headlines, with the ban on online poker as its frame, and in the time it ultimately took to make All In, 4th Row Films released three other films. A look at the film’s credits highlight its evolving nature. Nine people are listed as cinematographers.

“The number of people who did some work on the film is huge,” said Bedusa. “We shot in 14 states, and while Doug was involved in it all, we didn’t have one director of photography… We have our L.A. guy and our Nashville guy, people we’ve worked with on the marketing side, so they kind of all shot the film.”

So, three years after it could have been released, All In is going into theaters this month a different, and better, film. Which makes the point that in documentary, going all in can be a good bet.

All In: The Poker Movie opens in New York City on March 23 and in Los Angeles on April 13. Check for a full list of screenings.

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Edward J. Delaney is a journalist, author, filmmaker and editor of DocumentaryTech, an online project that explores documentary filmmaking techniques and technology.